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Part 5: Friendship, Touring, Working with Actors as a Writer

The prolific Devon Ellington seems to be everywhere these days – she writes the column “The Literary Athlete” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW , has the high-traffic blog on the writing life Ink in My Coffee, covers sports for FEMMEFAN . Her fiction has been published in ESPRESSO FICTION, WILD CHILD, THE ROSE AND THORN, THEMA, EMERGING WOMEN WRITERS, GRIT, THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, and more; her non-fiction credits include TOASTED CHEESE, HAMPTON FAMILY LIFE, THE CRAFTY TRAVELLER, THE SAVVY GAL, BLESSED GARDENS, THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE, and ELLE. Her plays have been produced in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe twice and the Adelaide Festival Fringe (in Australia) once, as well as in London and New York.

Ellington publishes under several names. August 1 saw the release of her paranormal action/adventure novella HEX BREAKER from Firedrakes Weyr Publishing. In September, NEW MYTHS will publish “The Merry’s Dalliance”, a pirate fantasy, and her play BEHIND THE MAN opens Cloverleaf’s January 2009 season. The notoriously reclusive Ellington is unusually candid in her answers to our questions.

Benson: Do you consider any of them (actors) friends?

Ellington: Some of them, yes, but that doesn’t mean we’re in touch every single day. And of course, there are work friends, where you spend a lot of time on the show, but then not until the next show, and there are actual, real friends. Some I’m closer with than others. It’s like any friendship; there are ebbs and flows. Sometimes, too, you can have a great experience working with someone, but don’t get the chance to spend time outside of the show. So sometimes you lay the foundation of the friendship in the initial working relationship, keep in touch, and it builds over time. And it’s at a different place the next time you work together. And then there are actors where I started as their dresser, but as the friendship developed over time, it really works better for them to have someone else as their dresser and we just go to dinner and catch up when they’re in town, or I write for them instead of dress them. The dynamic has shifted. There are actors with whom I wasn’t that close on a run, but for whatever reason, we kept in touch, became friends, and then actively sought out ways to work together. There are also those people you stay in loose touch with, but it doesn’t mean you’re not close – in trouble, you’d always have each other’s back – and then, when you land on the next project together, it’s like you just left the dressing room together yesterday. You pick up immediately where you left off, but better.

The great thing about working with people over and over again, especially when you like them, is you develop a shorthand. You have to be careful, though, that it doesn’t seem like an exclusive club to others on the show. That can be detrimental to the overall backstage atmosphere. Although I’ve been on shows that have been such a mess that the actor and I had to bond with an “us-against-the-world” attitude for sheer survival, especially in out-of-town tryouts.

Benson: Do you tour a lot?

Ellington: No. Through the years I discovered that, although I prefer theatre work to film work, I prefer film (or TV) location work to touring theatre.

Benson: Why?

Ellington: It’s my own eccentricities, my own personal weirdness. In film, you’re there for a very finite period of time, the hours are brutal, it’s intense, and you don’t have much time to do anything but live the project for that concentrated period. Touring theatre, I find I feel cooped up, resentful of being on other people’s schedules, and trapped. It’s lonely in a lot of ways (even when you have an amazing group of people), but at the same time, I don’t have enough solitude to get any real writing done. I travel a lot for the writing, and I like being on my own schedule when I’m out of town, not on someone else’s. Also, road contracts for crews have been decimated over the last few negotiations. It used to be lucrative to go on tour for a few years; now, it costs money unless you’re in a relationship with a fellow tour member and can save at least one person’s income. I also resent it when local crew makes twice what I do, when they have one fourth of the skills. I get claustrophobic and then I act out. At this point, I’d go out for a limited time because a specific actor asked me to and put me in the contract, but not book a tour just to work a tour.

I do miss the feeling of “home” one has working in a regional or repertory company, though. Talk about developing a shorthand with these people – -you’re together all season. Even when you can’t stand each other any more, you still miss each other. I had the sense of “home” on SAIGON, because it not only ran for years, but it was an extraordinary group of people. Everyone was working on creative projects all the time. We’d swap manuscript drafts, play new songs for each other, figure out designs, artwork, it was constant creativity. When one person went off to do a showcase of original work somewhere, that person knew at least 100 people from the show – cast, crew, everyone – would show up in support. I keep looking for it again on other Broadway shows, but I haven’t found it. This summer, in particular, while working on another show – a show I loved working on — I missed SAIGON so much sometimes it caused physical pain. There were days where my heart was literally sore. And I hadn’t thought that much about the show for several years; it closed in 2000.

As an aside, I’ve realized I’ve talked a lot about money in several of the questions. There are projects you do for love and projects you do for money; when you’re lucky, they’re one and the same. But, if you’re going to survive in this business, you have to remember it’s a business. Unfortunately, those who hold the purse strings believe – and I’ve sat across from them at negotiations and they’ve flat out said so – believe that we – actors, writers, crew, etc. – should feel privileged to work in this business, and, basically, we should pay them to work in it. Uh, no. If they didn’t have creative work, actors, and crew, there’d be nothing for them to sell. That’s why the writers had to take a stand, why the stagehands had to strike, and why the actor negotiations got so much attention lately. Producers have no product, no reason to exist, without the rest of us, so they need to stop acting like they’re doing us a favor by signing an occasional check.

Benson: How different is your relationship with actors when you’re the writer?

Ellington: I still strive to create an atmosphere of trust. I sometimes manage to get on as a co-producer on things I write, and I thrash out a lot of ground rules with the rest of the producers and the director before we walk into the rehearsal room. I don’t sit quietly in the rehearsal room and not speak to the actors. I don’t contradict the director – we’ll sort out our differences in private and present a united front – but I won’t sit there and whisper to the director who then talks to the actors. We’re not playing telephone. If I have something to say, I’ll say it. I try to retain at least casting approval, although I prefer to participate in the entire process, so we usually start with a pretty solid bunch with a firm foundation and the beginnings of a connection. If you give up rights, it better be for a boatload of cash, and then you better keep your mouth shut if you disagree with their decisions.

Benson: How do you cast?

Ellington: I have an intense casting process. Sometimes, I’ve written a role with an actor in mind, so that person is attached from Day One, and that’s all settled. But if a person has to leave for whatever reason or we’re starting from scratch – I start with 20 minute appointments. I always hire a professional actor to read with auditionees. I think it’s unfair to expect an actor to read with some little office assistant. I usually ask for a 2 minute Shakespeare monologue and a 2 minute contemporary monologue, and then I hand the actor some of my work for a cold reading. There are a few minutes of chatting, to get a sense of who the person is.

Most actors really blossom during the process, because they’re used to being treated like cattle, but there are always a few where you go, what are they thinking? Like the actor who took off his shirt and gave me a lap dance – honey, that is SO not getting you the job, I don’t care how hot you are – or the guy who came in to audition for a tough guy and thought pulling a switchblade on me would impress me. He was flat on his back with the knife at his throat before he knew what hit him. I lived on the Deuce for 13 years before it was Disneyfied – you don’t pull a knife on me and not expect to eat it.

Every actor who auditions gets a phone call, whether they’re cast or not. And sometimes, I’ve seen someone I really liked who wasn’t right for anything in the piece, so I either wrote in an additional role or wrote something else and cast the person in it as the next piece down the line.

Callbacks usually run an hour. I don’t call actors back frivolously. If there’s a callback, there’s something I see in them that I seriously think I’m going to use in the project. I like to see how the actor takes direction, I like to see how much the actor dares to be inventive, if the person can think on his feet. I tend to cast the people who connect most strongly to the work, which means I usually wind up with a pretty diverse cast. There’s an element of colorblind casting to it, but without the quota system.

For MOON TRIBE TALES, because it was a large, ensemble cast and we were going to be together for six months to develop the piece, we mixed and matched the callbacks in groups, doing improves as well as pre-written ensemble scenes, because the chemistry between the actresses was so vital. We had thirteen actresses playing at least a half a dozen roles each. I think we had something like 90 characters in the whole production. There was another project, which, unfortunately, never made it through the casting stage where we knew we had to rent an ice rink for callbacks, because a good portion of the cast had to be skaters. AND they had to have good chemistry together. We didn’t have time to hire an actor who lied about skating ability and then set them up with a coach. They had to be excellent skaters, because we’d only have two weeks to prep them in the skating sequences before shooting.

When we filmed PLATEAU, we cast for nearly a month, and someone I had tossed into the pool from the submissions as a wild card – there was something in his eyes – wound up winning the part. We had an intensive rehearsal process for about three weeks, much of it filmed, so when we got to the location (we had four days to shoot the sucker), all we had to do was camera block and shoot.

On Friday: Television, Mythology, How Working Backstage influenced the writing, and, finally . . .HEX BREAKER.

To read an excerpt of Hex Breaker, visit the site for the Jain Lazarus Adventures.

To purchase a copy of HEX BREAKER, visit the FireDrakes Weyr Publishing site.

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